Living in the free world

For ages, PC World's annual cover stories on the Web's best freebies were newsstand blockbusters. And then an odd thing happened: We quit doing them. The planet's supply of no-charge gems seemed to be dwindling, as some acquired price tags and others simply vanished.

Recently, however, free stuff has come roaring back. Which is why, once again, the words "Best Free Stuff" are gracing a PCW cover.

The feature story, "101 Fabulous Freebies," reflects the efforts of three intrepid freebie hunters: the article's author Dylan Tweney, and Associate Editors Laura Blackwell and Liane Cassavoy, who double-teamed the project to reality.

Dylan, a PCW contributor for a decade, confesses that he fretted at first about finding enough winners to fill the article. "In the old days," he remembers, "free stuff was full of quirky interfaces and bugs."

No longer. In fact, he says, "assuming you've paid for Windows, almost everything else you use could be free, and you could be happy." (Linuxheads, of course, will contend that you don't even need to pony up for an operating system.)

Why the renaissance of free? Some of our picks -- such as the OpenOffice.org suite -- come from the booming open-source community, whose volunteers give away some terrific software.

Even for companies that hope to turn free stuff into profits, the cost of doing cool things on the Web is plunging. For instance, many sites and services are built on existing open-source code, giving their developers a big head start. Google and others offer automated advertising networks that let sites subsidize themselves with ads, without hiring an army of salespeople. Then there's the ever-shrinking cost of disk space, now pennies per gigabyte; these days, services can afford to give you plenty of elbow room for your e-mail, photos, or documents.

Free today, gone tomorrow?

For some free-stuff purveyors, all this good news seems to have led to a new bout of the old dot-com bug known as irrational exuberance. Lately, I've met more than one giddy CEO who has postponed the little detail of figuring out how to make a buck. Some of them point to Google, which has pocketed billions by placing text ads on free services, and which famously launches new products without a strategy for monetizing them.

Any company can fantasize about being the next Google -- even Microsoft, whose new Live services have a Google-esque, ad-based business model. Whether any can succeed is a different matter.

And it's an issue that even those of us who merely consume no-charge goodies need to ponder. A company without a rational plan for staying in business is one that you can't depend on to meet your needs and protect your info.

Smart freeloaders should keep these tips in mind:

Don't use an unproven no-cost service as the primary repository for critical data you can't replace. Consider upgrading to fee-based versions of tools; paying customers are entitled to be fussier, and your purchase might help ensure the provider's solvency. Check out support options before you need them, to make sure they exist. Always ask yourself one simple question: What would you do if a favorite freebie suddenly went away?

The bottom line is that the mortality rate for these sites, services, and software is likely to remain high. (Of the 60 or so items we recommended in our March 2001 "Free Stuff" feature, only half are still around and still without charge.)

So enjoy the free ride -- I sure am -- but be careful out there. It's a lot easier to savor a free lunch when you're not completely dependent on it.

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Harry McCracken

PC World
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